The Next Process is the Customer.

I recently read of an interesting concept, and that is of treating the next step in any process as your customer. This actually makes a lot of sense, especially when we consider that in almost all organizations, the vast majority of team members are serving internal customers — i.e. other team members!

This way of thinking can be summarized as follows:

Don’t accept defects, don’t make defects, and don’t pass on defects.

Now, this is easier said than done because internal customers are often captive markets. In other words, the next step in the process is not free to choose another supplier to do the previous work they depend upon. And whenever there is a captive market or audience, we know what happens: quality goes down, and the price goes up.

This is why at the airport the food quality is normally bad, but expensive. You are stuck there, you don’t have any freedom of choice if you want to eat.

The way to fight this tendency is to allow owners of the process to refuse defects from the previous work and send it back to the previous process owner. In manufacturing, this can be incredibly effective, as workers of the previous process start to work surrounded by their own defective work. I’ve read of a case of steel sheets piling up due to over-production and thus being sent back. This sends a clear message: stop producing steel sheets until the backlog is cleared.

With knowledge work, this has to be more nuanced because there are no physical constraints. “Sending back work” may just be an email complaining about the quality and asking for changes — but the original process owner does not have to have his office literally stacked full of the previously done lousy work.

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